5 Questions for MJ Kaplan
MJ Kaplan pushes her students to seek knowledge first and see solutions second. Her course provides a space for students leading social ventures to build skills and community over the course of a semester. Here she explains how she became an enterprise builder and what students gain from the study of social innovation.
Liza: How do you define social innovation?
MJ: I think of it really as some sort of breakthrough that fundamentally shifts either the why, the what, or the how of social impact. It’s not necessarily doing something fundamentally new. For instance, taking a technology that already exists and making it much cheaper or much simpler? That, to me, is a fabulous example of social innovation.
How did you get into social enterprise work?
I’ve always had an interest in cross-sector work. My work in the non-profit field always had to do with how they could apply better business practices to their work and I cross-pollinated in the private sector a lot of the values from the nonprofit sector. So social enterprise was really a no-brainer for me.
Where I got more involved was after the recession hit. Many non-profit clients were approaching me that I felt were operating on a deficit model. They were feeling like resources were drying up and they were sort of desperately shrinking and panicking. I started noticing and pursuing other organizations that saw the turmoil as an opportunity and were taking bold action to step back and rebuild fundamentally different approaches to their work. What I found working with startups and was that they were leapfrogging a lot of the dysfunction of existing organizations, leveraging technology and whole different mindsets about what’s possible. I got very excited about more experimental models and efforts coming out of the startup scene.
What can young social entrepreneurs gain from working on startups in a classroom context?
I think there are two main things. One is that a student who’s at Brown who has a social venture is really, really busy. They have an obligation to be pursuing an academic path and they also have this venture, not to mention a social life and who knows what else. So I think it’s really helpful for students to tie their interest in a venture and their passion in the field to their academics. It’s just expedient. And because social enterprise and innovation is so multidisciplinary it doesn’t matter if they’re pursuing economics or anthropology or a language or business. In fact, that diversity is really exciting and valuable; the students are bringing a lot of expertise into the classroom.
And two, it’s very seductive to get to the how; the practical things are really what anybody doing a startup wants to know. But I think that it better serves students pursuing the field of social entrepreneurship to have that backdrop of context, understanding economics and policy issues and ethical issues. We’re very mindful of trying to link those to the practical “Okay, so I get the complexity of those ideas and those structures, now what am I going to do for my venture?” We try to blend that.
What happens if a student completely changes venture plans during your class?
I’d say it’s rare to have a time when that doesn’t happen. It’s the nature of the field. You’re constantly iterating and being adaptive and there can be many twists and turns. It’s a roller coaster and part of what we try to do with the class as well as the fellowship is create a community, not only an intellectual community to support each other with tips and ideas that are specific, but also an emotional community for when they’re thinking “Oh my God, am I going to have to abandon this?” or “I can’t believe that screwed up!”
What keeps you motivated?
I think when you’re working in social change it’s really easy to get depressed and frustrated. It’s easy to get sucked into that. My work especially, not exclusively, with younger people keeps me very optimistic. I think that there’s just a growing desire to do the right thing. To take talent and creativity and channel it for social good. I think the most exciting thing in the whole field is that there’s a shift in capitalism. There’s an idea that capitalism doesn’t need to be creating the problems of society, it can actually fundamentally be part of creating the solutions. The private sector is creating a lot of new products and services that are growing the economy and do social good. So I am an optimist. I am.
December 17, 2015
December 16, 2015
Ria is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow and co-founder of No Country for Women (NCFW), an internationally-recognized gender education initiative that aims to combat systemic gender-based discrimination in India. Ria and her co-founder, Shreena Thakore ’16, who grew up in India, were awarded the Projects for Peace fellowship and used this grant to launch the project in May of 2014. NCFW was set up to educate the people in India on gender, rape culture, and misogyny through a series of workshops and initiate informed discussions about social change.
I was inspired by Ria’s story because she was determined to start a conversation about an issue in a country that fights hard to keep such issues silent and hidden. We reflected on Ria’s experiences, her interactions with young people, most of whom had never thought about this obvious form of discrimination before, and her moments of self-doubt and extreme conviction.
December 8, 2015
Drew first became interested in filmmaking at an end of the year party at his kindergarten graduation, glued to the screen watching Star Wars while his friends ran around the yard screaming. His love of political science was ignited by his high school constitutional law class and exposure to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, all of which provided average citizens access to a better understanding of the impact of the law.
Now Drew is a junior at Brown, bringing together his interests by double concentrating in Political Science and Modern Culture and Media. He brings his passion for filmmaking and accessibility of policies outside of the classroom by making films with Brown Motion Pictures and working as the head University News editor for The Brown Daily Herald. Next semester, however, Drew is taking the spring off to work at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, Ireland, where he’ll be working in the consulate, handling public affairs issues, and hopefully creating multimedia projects while being in charge of their website.
December 2, 2015
“Time is a social construct,” Anastasiya laughs. From where I stand, I can’t imagine she has any.
It was a miracle that she agreed to sit and chat with me — between two meetings, of course. First off, Anastasiya is the co-editor-in-chief at bluestockings Magazine, an online feminist publication committed to a gender-aware, anti-oppressive framework. She is a facilitator for the Gender, Power, Sexuality (GPS) workshop (formerly known as FemSex), which is a student-led sexuality workshop held every semester. She is on Brown’s Title IX Oversight and Advisory Board, which reviews and makes recommendations concerning the University’s handling of sexual assault and gender-based violence on campus. Oh, and she also works remotely for Know Your IX, a national organization that empowers students to stop sexual violence and support survivors, by educating about student rights under Title IX. See what I mean? A miracle.
Anastasiya and I sat on a blanket on the main green, reflecting on her time spent within these communities at Brown: communities that advocate for social change, and also provide a supportive space for their members to share their own experiences and vulnerabilities with one another.
November 10, 2015
Professor Sarah Besky is alternately described as a “goddess” (by her students), as “a thorn in corporations’ sides” (by herself) and as an anthropologist (by the rest of the world).
She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown and author of The Darjeeling Distinction, an ethnographic study of the lives of tea plantation workers in India. Here is an anthropological look at her journey from coastal Connecticut to lush Nepal and back to Providence.
November 3, 2015
Olivia’s commitment to Swearer runs deep. She helps lead and coordinate Rhode Island Urban Debate League (RIUDL), which empowers local high school students to project their voices through debate, and increases their college readiness and academic success (see her wonderful story on RIDUL here).
Recently, she has been grappling with how to make the Swearer Center more inclusive of students of color. It’s a crucial conversation for all public service centers - and universities in general - and I wanted to know her process.